Chairpersons' Liaison Group Report - Lessons Learnt from Operation of Committees

The Chairpersons’ Liaison Group was established on 26 June 2007 and is made up of the Chairpersons of all Statutory and Standing Committees (not the Business Committee).

The Chairpersons’ Liaison Group fulfils a practical liaison role in relation to the work of Assembly Committees, helping to develop common approaches to common problems and promoting best practice.

In particular the Liaison Group seeks to:

  • represent the common interest of Assembly Committees;
  • identify, evaluate and assess options for improving the collective effectiveness of Assembly Committees;
  • identify, on behalf of committee members and the staff in the Committee Office, common areas for development and training; and
  • guide the Clerk Assistants in making decisions about financial and other resource allocations.

The Chairpersons’ Liaison Group has examined the way committees have operated in the 2007 – 2011 mandate and in particular has considered areas of innovation and good practice, as well as considering what could have worked better. It is suggested that the lessons learnt may be helpful for committees in the 2011 - 15 mandate.

General

  • Although all committees operate slightly differently, in the course of the current mandate they have built up a high level of expertise. Statutory committees in particular have clearly established their scrutiny role with Ministers and Departments. Committee staff teams have developed effective networks of contacts and support. Liaison between Departmental Assembly Liaison Officers (DALO) and committee teams has largely been operating successfully.
  • Chairpersons found the input of the Assembly Communication Office to be of value in the 2007 – 2011 mandate. This support combined with positive improvements in committee rooms and in broadcasting facilities have greatly assisted the operation of committees and enhanced the media profile during the mandate.
  • The Chairpersons’ Liaison Group has asked the Committee on Procedures to consider whether 11 is the optimum number of members for committees or whether it would be better to have fewer members on each committee thus reducing the need for all members to be on more than one committee and allowing them to focus their time on one subject area.
  • Weekly meetings of committees are the norm and meetings are sometimes lengthy. Circumstances sometimes require more than one meeting a week. It would not seem practical to change to fortnightly meetings without a major change in how departments and committees interact and without a change in the nature of the business conducted.
  • Committees have a very wide remit and are expected to undertake a range of activities from Bill scrutiny, inquiries, stakeholder events and committee visits. Committees often find it hard to find a balanced work programme
  • It is recognised that some committees have very large volumes of correspondence and matters arising to deal with each week and this can be very time consuming. Committees have used various methods of dealing with this such as separate correspondence folders which are copied for information only. It may also be beneficial to prepare standard responses for use in such circumstances.

Evidence/Scrutiny

  • In evidence sessions most committees allow witnesses a ten minute presentation at the outset while some, for example, the Finance and Personnel Committee sometimes go straight into questions.
  • There are clear merits in committees undertaking pre meetings for important evidence sessions. This may be by having prepared lines of questions and/or having a short discussion in closed session in advance. It is also beneficial to allow committee members to pursue a line of questioning with a witness rather than restrict to a single question. It may be appropriate to offer specialised assistance for new members on questioning witnesses.
  • It is considered that committees are more effective in holding a Minister/Department to account where departmental officials are present at a meeting and asked to respond to evidence from stakeholders immediately, although this has to be balanced with the need to have full and comprehensive responses.
  • There are merits in having back to back evidence from key stakeholders followed by the department. There are examples where this has worked well during the committee stage of the Justice Bill and the Education Bill. Variants of this have also worked for other committees, e.g. the Finance and Personnel Committee passes all written submissions to the Department for a response and this is available when witnesses attend the Committee. The Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety also often held all day back to back evidence sessions on specific topics such as hospital hygiene and child protection.
  • Committees tend to hear evidence from umbrella type bodies and while this is useful they also need to hear solid evidence based views from organisations like Northern Ireland Audit Office and Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority.
  • The provision of good quality and timely research papers has been vital to committees in undertaking effective scrutiny.
  • While it is recognised that committees have, in this mandate had a strong performance and proven track record in their scrutiny role and in talking to stakeholders, committees could do more to operate at a strategic level.
  • Chairpersons’ recognise that dealing with individual and constituency cases was not appropriate for committees.
  • Some committees have had concerns that departments don’t bring information to them in advance of agreement by the Executive and it may then be too late to influence the proposals.
  • Committee s have regularly been concerned about the quality and the timeliness of information that they receive from departments. This is particularly true in relation to the budget proposals. The Finance & Personnel Committee is currently examining this issue and its recommendations should be very helpful. Executive approval of the draft protocol on ‘Timescales for interaction between Assembly Committees and Departments’ which was agreed by CLG in September could also assist greatly.

Bills

  • It is recognised that in only a few instances the committee stage of bills has been completed in the statutory 30 day limit and most committees request an extension to allow them to carry out thorough scrutiny. The Procedures Committee is currently examining this issue.
  • Unlike most other legislatures committees cannot amend bills during the Committee Stage. This may be something to consider in the longer term. Under the present system it has proved very efficient for committees to persuade the relevant department to bring forward their recommended amendments.
  • More effective timetabling of bills is needed to avoid the experience of multiple bills coming towards the end of the mandate which has proved challenging for committees.

Inquiries

  • The experience of attempting to appoint a specialist adviser to assist with inquiries has proved difficult because of timescales and procurement processes which are too lengthy and complex. Some committees have used alternatives such as bringing in subject experts as witnesses.
  • It is also recognised that there is an absence of budget analysis expertise available to committees. Recent attempts by the Health and Education Committees to appoint a specialist financial adviser have been unsuccessful. It is suggested that there may be merit in setting up a panel of experts that could be called upon by committees. Research staff may be able to assist with this.
  • As an alternative to a full blown inquiry some committees have undertaken short sharp reviews of specific areas and produced a report. This has proved very effective.
  • A number of committees have used Committee Motions as an effective way of ensuring a priority debate on an important issue. Committees have recognised that there is scope for a recommendation to be incorporated into a Committee Motion. It is important to have research papers and other evidence available to support the committee in the plenary debate.

Stakeholders

  • Committees have used a variety of innovative stakeholder events to gather views on major issues or in relation to bills. These have proved most effective where committee members have been directly involved, e.g. as members of a panel. The appointment of a facilitator to lead the event has also been very beneficial. Organising such events can be resource intensive for committee staff and the assistance of support from the Engagement Directorate and Hansard has been very welcome.
  • The use of the ‘speed dating’ event to hear views from a large number of groups and individuals has proved very successful and has evolved over the course of the mandate. However, there has been a diminishing return from this type of event as the same groups tend to come back again and it has proved difficult to hear the views of ‘harder to reach’ groups. It is expected that there will be a high demand from stakeholders to meet with new committees following the election. Speed dating events will be one way of dealing with this but new methods may also need to be developed.
  • Chairpersons have indicated that committee could perhaps do more to reach out to ethnic minority communities including migrant populations.

Visits/ Meetings outside Parliament Buildings

  • Regular visits by committees throughout Northern Ireland have proved very beneficial in terms of increasing members knowledge base and engagement with stakeholders. These have been most effective when the visit is combined with a committee meeting. Some committees have ensured greater public engagement through, for example, inviting schools to see the committee in action.

    Visits outside Northern Ireland have also helped committees to gain a more in-depth understanding of issues and have been beneficial in team building. Visits connected to inquiries or forthcoming legislation have been particularly fruitful. With a restricted budget in the future there is likely to be a need for a robust case to be made to justify all external visits. CLG may be able to undertake an adjudication role where there are competing demands for limited resources.

Challenges for future committees

  • Budget scrutiny – the Finance and Personnel Committee is very actively seeking to enhance the role of the Assembly and committees and Assembly research has begun to develop specific and targeted expertise. This will provide opportunity for Assembly committees to undertake increased and more effective budget scrutiny in the 2011 – 15 mandate.
  • The difficulties around the recruitment of specialist advisers requires to be resolved to allow committees easy and quick access to the specialist advice they need, when they need it.
  • While members have built up detailed and in depth knowledge of the subject areas of the committee they are on, new members may need some coaching and time to develop similar knowledge. The Chairpersons’ Liaison Group recognises that the Parties as well as committee staff will have a role to play in this matter.
  • There has been some excellent best practice in committees regarding stakeholder events, scrutiny, and questioning that may be lost unless recorded into a best practise toolkit for easy reference for committees in the 2011 – 15 mandate.
  • There should be a continuation and development of the good work between committees and the Communication Office to increase the profile of committees. CLG members noted a significant improvement between this mandate and the first Assembly mandate. There are a number of examples of good practice and these should be collated to encourage adoption by all committees.
  • The “Departmental Guidance on Assembly Committees – timescales for interaction between Assembly Committees and Departments” approved by CLG and the Executive for introduction in the 2011 – 15 mandate will be an important tool for the basis of effective working relationship between departments and Assembly committees. It is recommended that this Guidance be reviewed after a year of operation.
  • It was recognised that in the 2007 – 11 mandate, many committees often received late papers from departments. Committees may wish to consider that on occasion, in response to such late papers it may be appropriate to consider refusing to take officials at the scheduled evidence sessions asking them to return at a date convenient for the committee.

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